A fascinating subject rendered in disappointing prose.

HOW TO SURVIVE A SUMMER

An attempt to “pray away the gay” has tragic consequences.

Will Dillard has a secret. It’s not that he’s gay; that’s no secret at all, not anymore. It’s that he spent one summer at Camp Levi, an institution devoted to “curing” teenage boys of their homosexuality. The program was a combination of Scripture and abuse, and Will’s time there came to an abrupt and horrifying end when a camper disappeared. Having left home for college—and, later, graduate school—he’s still haunted by his past, but it’s a past he has no intention of sharing with anyone. Then that terrible summer at Camp Levi becomes the basis for a slasher movie, and Will learns that he’ll never escape. An email from one of the former counselors involved in the making of the film sends him back to Mississippi looking for answers and a sense of closure. First-time novelist White has the makings of a great book, but his work shows some of the weaknesses common to debuts. There are episodes that are simply impossible to believe, such as the one in which Will climbs under his desk during a panic attack and neither of his fellow teaching assistants, with whom he shares a cramped office, notices. There are also problems of structure and style. It makes perfect psychological sense that Will would want to keep the details of an traumatic adolescent experience from the lovers and friends he’s met since leaving home, but, as a narrative device, his reticence is frustrating. There’s a lack of definition; it feels like White hasn’t quite decided which story he’s going to tell. The whole novel is, of course, Will’s story, but it’s Camp Levi that makes his story singular, and the author takes his time getting there. Much of the novel is taken up with Will’s road trip and with scenes from his life just before he begins conversion therapy. The writing, for the most part, is perfunctory, so plot is the pull here, but the pace is too slow to be satisfying.

A fascinating subject rendered in disappointing prose.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-57368-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Blue Rider Press

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2017

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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